William Castle’s movies were notable more for the ingenious ways in which he promoted them than for their own merits, but most were at least competent and some (such as Mr Sardonicus were excellent. Homicidal, released by William Castle Productions in 1961, belongs in the competent category.
In this case the gimmick was a “Fright Break” which allowed audience members who couldn’t stand the terror to retreat to “Coward’s Corner.”
There is another element to this film that could be regarded as a gimmick. It’s one that works better than you might expect it to but I can’t say any more for fear of revealing spoilers.
Homicidal was strongly influenced by another very successful movie, but again to reveal which movie would be to give away a spoiler.
In Homicidal we know from the beginning that Emily is a psycho killer, and it isn’t very long to before we see her in full-fledged homicidal action. The movie begins with a flashback to childhood for two of the main characters, and we then move to the present day. Emily is caring for Helga, who is confined to a wheelchair and also cannot speak. Helga had been the childhood nanny of Warren and his half-sister Miriam.
Emily shows up at a hotel and makes an extraordinary offer to the bellboy. She offers him $2,000 to marry her, with the marriage to be annulled immediately after the ceremony. It all sounds pretty strange but two thousand bucks is two thousand bucks so he agrees. The wedding itself will come as a big surprise to him.
Emily obviously has some reason to hate Helga, and Helga obviously has some reason to fear Emily. We will not find out the reason until the end of the movie.
As a murder investigation gets under way (I’m being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers) Miriam and her friend Carl start to suspect that Emily may be the murderess but when she announces that she is married (not to the bellhop but to someone else) they are hesitant about going to the police. That could turn out to be a big mistake.
The plot is ludicrous if you examine it too closely. It’s based on an idea that stretches credibility beyond breaking point, but plot holes are not necessarily a fatal flaw in a horror movie and it’s to director William Castle’s credit that the movie sweeps us along so we don’t have time to think too much about whether any of it makes sense.
The support cast is mostly adequate but the star is certainly Jean Arless who plays Emily. She was not a great actress but her performance is sufficiently bizarre and unusual to make it a reason to see this movie.
There’s the kind of emphasis on childhood trauma as an explanation for psycho killers that was so popular at the time. It isn’t very convincing, but then such theories never were.
William Castle was trying to establish himself as a low-budget version of Alfred Hitchcock, doing introductions to his movies that were very similar to the introductions Hitchcock did to his television series. His enthusiasm for movies and his flair for showmanship make it difficult not to like the guy. As a director he rarely reached any great heights but he understood what audiences wanted and he was a thoroughly competent artisan who occasionally pulled off some fairly effective shocks.
This movie is part of the William Castle Film Collection DVD boxed set and it’s been given a very good anamorphic transfer. There’s also a brief featurette that focuses more on his showmanship than on his movies. The boxed set as a whole is a very worthwhile buy.
Homicidal might not be a great movie but it’s entertaining and it has one unusual feature that makes it stand out. Recommended.